Some Thoughts on the New Defense Strategy

It’s hard to say a lot about the new strategic guidance released by the Pentagon on Thursday since the document (pdf), titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” doesn’t say all that much.  A more detailed assessment may be possible when the defense budget is released in February.  It’s noteworthy that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted that the new defense plan did not factor in the $500 billion is cuts over the next decade mandated by the supercommittee’s failure to reach a deal late last year.  According to Panetta, if a compromise isn’t reached and the new cuts go into effect, the new strategy will be “out the window.” So it is possible—perhaps even likely—there will be another strategy to review in the coming months.  For now though, here are a few preliminary thoughts and questions on the new strategy.

Austerity should cause strategists to prioritize missions instead of vaguely referring to each as if they hold equivalent weight; this document avoids any prioritization and difficult decisions over missions.  That vagueness is likely purposeful and in a way it is understandable.  The concerns about explicitly laying out priorities here were likely twofold: alienating allies and demonstrating openings to potential adversaries.

The latter is a legitimate concern since a perception that the U.S. military is unwilling to defend certain areas could spark aggression in a locale that Washington may deem important in hindsight.  For example, Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s 1950 “Defense Perimeter” speech notably left South Korea off a list of American interests in Asia and signaled to North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union that the United States would not come to Seoul’s defense should Kim Il-Sung attempt to reunify the peninsula.  However, establishing “red lines” can be a way of clarifying where and when the United States military will use force as a way to avoid an escalation of a crisis to a larger war.  Of course, this would demand shuttering certain commitments that are not worth defending to the utmost—which Washington seems unwilling to do any time soon.

The second concern is not alienating allies. There is no incentive for U.S. allies spend more to defend interests that are vital to them, but less so to the United States..  The strategy document states, “The United States will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to the global commons.”  But capable allies are harder to come by than this hopeful statement would assume.  The air operations over Libya showed just how ill prepared America’s NATO allies are, and the adversary was a third-rate military.  What would the results have been had the opponent been someone who could have struck back significantly against the intervening forces?  No amount of upbraiding by American secretaries of defense is going to force America’s allies to improve their military capabilities unless they are provided some meaningful incentive to do so.

Along those same lines, the strategy continues to peddle the assertion that the United States must defend Europe in perpetuity while failing to explain why—or, more importantly, against whom—it must be defended.  Also proffered is the absurd notion that “European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it.”  This is only true in the narrowest sense because Europe is not under any threat of external aggression, but the fact that European allies were almost wholly dependent on the United States to conduct their own operations over Libya.  This failure to invest in their own defense capabilities makes it nearly impossible to act independently in pursuit of European own security were some new, actual threat to emerge.

Moving on, why are humanitarian missions listed as a strategic priority?  This isn’t the type of so-called “humanitarianism” like the previously mentioned aerial operations over Libya last year.   The type of humanitarian missions alluded to here include airlifting supplies to Tsunami victims in the Indian Ocean littorals or providing security to earthquake victims in Haiti.  These are not useless missions by any stretch of the imagination—they often help people in need and are an image-booster for the U.S. military and America as a whole.  But that does not make them missions that deserve either strategic or budgetary priority.  These are the types of missions that should be undertaken on an “as able”—i.e. when U.S. forces are deployed in an area adjacent to a disaster and not engaged in another critical mission.  The fact that “disaster relief” is listed among actual strategic priorities like counterterrorism and overcoming anti-access challenges demonstrates that our leaders are still unwilling to make choices about which missions are most important and which can be left to others.

Speaking of anti-access challenges, that Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) has a prominent place among other, more familiar missions is significant.  Overcoming A2/AD capabilities is viewed as one of the most important challenges for military planners in the coming decades.  While it is unclear how this issue will be addressed, the forthcoming DoD budget will hopefully provide some clues as to how Pentagon planners will seek to address threats posed by anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can menace the U.S. Navy’s preferred means of projecting power: carrier strike groups.  The strategy document implies that the military is still unprepared for this eventuality but that it needs to begin moving in that direction: “work needs to be done to ensure the United States, it allies, and partners are capable of operating in A2/AD, cyber, and other contested environments.”  It will be interesting to see how the budget addresses this deficiency and how this challenge will be overcome as the available pool of funds shrinks.

Where A2/AD capabilities are most worrisome is likely to be in any scenario with China, given its recent development of the DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile. While not named as an adversary in the document, China is specifically named as a strategic challenge. This is not likely to sit well in Beijing.  It is obvious to anyone with a pulse that the Obama administration’s recent “pivot” to Asia largely aims to check China’s growing military influence in the region. But the administration has gone to great lengths to make that reorientation seem less threatening to Beijing.  The public focus on China in a military guidance like this is much more explicit, and as long as China’s military capabilities continue to grow, and the United States continues to guarantee the security of nations such as Japan, South Korea, and, implicitly, Taiwan—all of who have territorial disputes with Beijing—the chances for conflict will remain.

India is also mentioned specifically, but as an emerging strategic partner—and presumed counterweight to a rising China.  But will Delhi reciprocate?  The former “crown jewel” of the British Empire is notoriously fickle.  The relationship between Washington and Delhi looked to be solidifying in the aftermath of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal implemented by the Bush administration and President Obama’s November 2010 call for India’s inclusion on the United Nations Security Council. But India rejected a deal for advanced F-16s, instead looking to the more capable Eurofighter and French built Rafale—though that deal has recently soured and the U.S. might be back in the game with F-35s on the table.  And India abstained in its Security Council vote to authorize the operations over Libya instead of backing Washington’s initiative.  An Indo-U.S. strategic partnership is a potential game-changer in the Indo-Pacific region, but it still remains to be seen whether the relationship can be consummated in the manner Washington seems to hope it will.

Nuclear weapons also receive a brief mention in the guidance:  “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.”  This is not all that surprising given the president’s arms control policy and preference for less reliance on nuclear weapons.  It’s also sounds policy.  A limited amount of nuclear weapons can achieve much, and the massive nuclear arsenals of the Cold War era were always far more than either side actually needed to deter the other.  Today though, the administration needs to be careful about tailoring a declaratory policy to the smaller arsenal it hopes to maintain.  While a small number of nuclear weapons can easily deter large-scale aggression against the United States and U.S. forces abroad, other tasks—such as extended deterrence and coercive diplomacy—may be viewed as less credible.  The document clearly states that the United States will maintain its security guarantees even as the number of actual warheads falls.  Wanting fewer nuclear weapons is perfectly acceptable, but what those remaining nuclear weapons are expected to accomplish must be adjusted as well.
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There is more to the document than this overview provides. Of particular interest are the sections on the future of COIN, and an excellent overview of how the strategy will affect U.S. ground forces is provided by Gulliver at Ink Spots.  In the end, this document raises more questions than answers.  As noted throughout, some questions may become clearer when the budget is released.  Two things that are evident moving forward are that the Pentagon still refuses to make significant choices about its strategic priorities and the Obama administration is still committed to maintaining outdated alliances and unnecessary security guarantees.  Time, and the possible implementation of the cuts mandated by the supercommittee’s failure, may be the only hope to force the type of hard choices that this document seems to have ignored.

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